August 6, 2009 at 9:00 a.m.
Beginning at age three, Gilman fished for everything he could on Lake Mildred. But, the lake lacked a walleye population for him to angle for. "Fishing was just a passion for me since I could walk. But, you always want what you can't have," Gilman said about the lack of walleyes in Mildred.
As he grew older and gained more experience fishing, he moved on to the Sugar Camp Chain of Lakes in Rhinelander, where walleyes were plentiful. He fished there for everything, but his passion was to catch the biggest walleyes in the lakes. So, Gilman turned to to the professional walleye fishing circuit.
Gilman's first tournament was actually a chance encounter. Nearly 21 years ago, Gilman was working at Gander Mountain in Wisconsin when a customer mentioned to him that there was a walleye fishing tournament on Gilman's own stomping grounds, the Sugar Camp Chain of Lakes. On a whim, Gilman entered the tournament, using a friend's boat since he didn't have one of his own.
"I was worried the night before the tournament that people would be at my spots," he explained about his first tourney experience. "I knew I could catch fish, but I thought everyone would know the spots."
Gilman said he hit his best spot first, but nothing was biting. He proceeded to his second, third and fourth best spots with no luck. But, as he kept moving, he started finding the bite, and he eventually caught enough fish to earn himself second place in the tournament.
After that, he was hooked. He began competing in the Masters Walleye Circuit and made a name for himself in those tournaments. "Every tournament I went to, I just learned some more new things," Gilman said. Back then, however, fishing wasn't as glamorous as it is now. Gilman would have to camp out in tents for the weekend at the tournament spot and gather information from local anglers.
"Being a professional fisherman takes a tremendous amount of work," the 44-year-old father of three said. "Most people have no idea how much work is involved with professional fishing."
The fishing circuit has certainly changed since then, as Gilman now calls the FLW Walleye Tour home. FLW Outdoors, named after Forrest L. Wood, the founder of Ranger Boats, is the largest fishing tournament organization in the world.
For the past two years, Gilman has been knocking on the door of the Land O' Lakes Angler of the Year award, but he finished second in 2007 and fourth in 2008.
Gilman would've claimed his first crown in 2008, but a simple gaffe in the season opener kept him from the title. Anglers are only allowed to keep five fish to be weighed at the end of a day, and Gilman had accidentally kept six. Unfortunately for Gilman, they don't just disqualify the smallest fish or largest fish, they disqualify all of the fish brought in that day.
But, the Chisago City native kept fishing away for the rest of the season and ended the season in fourth place.
Knowing he had what it took to earn a championship, Gilman began the 2009 season with a disappointing 32nd place finish on Lake Erie. He finished the tournament with a total weight of 40 lbs., 13 oz.
After the first event, though, Gilman became a model of consistency for the rest of the year.
In the second event of the year, Gilman caught 69 lbs., 10 oz. worth of walleyes on the Mississippi River out of Red Wing. The poundage earned him a seventh place finish.
He slowly began to climb the ranks then in the third event of the year. On Leech Lake in Walker, MN, Gilman finished in sixth place with a catch of 47 lbs., 14 oz.
Heading into the last tournament of the year, Gilman was behind two anglers in the overall standings, including Pat Byle, who had won the 2008 Angler of the Year award, and he thought he would have to wait another year to try to stake his claim to an Angler of the Year title. "I needed the two guys above me to stumble, but they're both great fisherman, so I didn't think it would happen," he explained. "After the first day though, I realized that I may have a chance to pass the guys."
Gilman kept his consistent fishing up in the tourney on Lake Winnebago in Oshkosh, WI, while other anglers around him struggled to net any substantial walleyes. Once all the final weights were tallied and checked, Gilman finished in fifth place overall with 47 lbs., 3 oz. over four days. The two guys above him faltered enough to give Gilman the Angler of the Year award.
"It was so gratifying. I had worked so hard for it for 21 years," Gilman gushed. "It was like taking a big weight off of my shoulders and it helped erase some of the memories I had from the past few years."
Gilman rehashed those struggles in an interview with FLW Outdoors, saying, "In 2007, I had two top-10 finishes, one 12th-place (finish) and a 13th-place. To not win it that year with 572 points was tragic," he said after winning the 2009 title. "And last year I made that simple mistake at Erie that cost me. I've been knocking at the door so many times. The things you work hardest at in life are the things you appreciate the most."
With the size of his walleyes growing bigger and bigger each year, Gilman's reputation grew. And with his reputation came some of the biggest sponsors around knocking at his door.
Gilman is now sponsored by Ranger Boats and Evinrude Motors, as well as still being a part of Frankie's Pro Team for Frankie's Live Bait and Marine in Chisago City. "I am very grateful for Frankie's support and service over the years," Gilman said. "Frankie and Deb (Dusenka) not only are friends, but they are always there when I need service or support. I am lucky to live so close to such a great dealer."
Frankie's recently became the number one Ranger Boat dealer in the nation, supplanting a marine shop in Dixie, Ohio.
Gilman also said he couldn't have won the championship without help from some of the other anglers. He noted that the camraderie on the tour is unbelievable. He explained that himself, along with four other anglers on the tour formed an unofficial team to share tips and help each other throughout the season.
Tips from a champion
Gilman zoned in on one concept that many casual anglers can never grasp as a big key to his fishing success. Fishing fast.
He said too many casual anglers have a good day at a spot, and then they fall in love with that one area. "You have to know the factors of the lake," he said. "Fish are constantly on the move, and the lake changes every day. You have to be willing to roll with the punches and move if you're not hitting fish."
Gilman, who's biggest walleye was a 13 pound, four ounce monster that came out of the Detroit River in Michigan, told an anecdote of when he boated nearly 20 miles to find a spot on Lake Erie, and after 10 minutes in the conditions at the time, Gilman knew that spot was a lost cause and sped another 20 miles to a different spot.
If anglers become too enamored with one spot, they could miss out on a lot of fish that are constantly moving.
Can he repeat?
Before Gilman looks ahead to next season, he has the FLW Walleye Tour Championship to look forward to. With his title, he was automatically qualified for the championship in Bismarck, ND on Sept. 30.
After that, however, Gilman said as long as the tournament stays lucrative and keeps a healthy circuit of lakes, he's going to keep fishing. "I'm really enjoying doing it, and I'll be doing it for quite a while," he said.
During his off-time, though, Gilman doesn't fish a terrible amount of walleyes. He fishes more for bass when he does go out, but other than that, he just likes to live a normal life. He works a full-time job for North Country Marketing in Chisago City, and has his hands full with three children, Nathan, who'll be a junior in high school, Easton, who'll be a sophomore and Brenna, who is going into seventh grade. Also, his wife, Kathy, gives Gilman support at home and when he is out on the lake fishing.
"I just like to work on my lawn or work in the garage when I'm not with my family or fishing," Gilman said.
If his lawn care skills or mechanic work is as good as his fishing acumen, Gilman might have the greenest lawn and the finest tuned car in Chisago City.
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